a manager’s guide to avoiding productivity-killing perfectionism

As a manager, you want your staff to have a high bar for excellence; you of course don’t want people doing the bare minimum and hoping it’s good enough to satisfy. But not every project needs to be perfect, and if your team members are spending their time striving for perfection on things that aren’t especially important or high-profile, that’s time they’re not spending on items that have more impact. In other words, in some cases “good enough” really good enough.

Here’s how you can get everyone be on the same page about when you do need to strive for perfection and when you shouldn’t.

1. Distinguish between what really must be perfect and what just needs to be good enough. For example, form letters that will be used with a broad audience or content that’s going up on your website should be polished – well-written, with your company’s voice, and no errors. But internal emails? As long as they’re easy to understand, they don’t need to be Shakespeare. A good rule of thumb: Things that will be seen by a large group of people outside your organization or by particularly important audiences or which will be reused again and again should get extra polishing time.

2. Be clear with your staff members that sometimes “good enough” is better than “perfect.” Conscientious employees tend to think that even if “good enough” is acceptable on a project, “perfect” would be better – but that’s not always true. Sometimes getting to perfect means that other work gets short shrift. And sometimes getting to perfect just doesn’t make sense, such as when you just need a rough outline to talk over before further work is done. It’s worth explicitly telling your staff that sometimes aiming for perfect isn’t just unnecessary, but even the wrong decision to make.

3. Encourage people to do deliberately rough experiments, with the goal of learning and refining from there. There’s real value in creating a culture where you test ideas quickly without putting in the time to get them 100% perfect, see what works and what doesn’t, draw lessons from your results, and then refine from there. Of course, that doesn’t mean launching an experiment to a massive audience; rather, you want to test it on smaller groups where the risk is lower. But doing that will give you far more freedom to road-test and then tweak, adopt, or jettison projects according real life results.


{ 52 comments… read them below }

  1. Hotstreak*

    To add to #2, sometimes Perfect means fast, not polished! I’m a bit of a perfectionist in my work and I need to remind myself of this from time to time. It helps to relate by thinking of it like dinner, where at the end of a long day the perfect meal isn’t a complicated three course affair, it’s whatever I can microwave in 4 minutes so I can eat and get to bed.

  2. The IT Manager*

    Ding, ding, ding! The second stock photo winner of the week! It totally gets the point across about unnecessary perfectionism.

  3. Kristine*

    The day I figured out that a (former) superior actually became MORE upset and nitpicked a project apart when I performed flawlessly than when I did not (and when I did not, she would cry for hours or even days) was the day that I figured out that her behavior was all about her anxieties, and not due to me at all.

    1. AMG*

      wow…Whatever happened to her?? Do you still work with her, and does she still do that to you or others?

  4. Kelly L.*

    And if you ask for a rough quick version, please remember that it’s a rough quick version! I have had it happen several times where I was asked for the quick and dirty version and not to make it perfect, only to have it distributed to a larger group later as much more authoritative than it was ever intended to be. Which has the effect of making me really anal, now, even about my rough mock-ups, or emblazoning them with the word ROUGH about a million times in the filename.

    1. Darcy*

      I also get this sometimes where I’m asked to throw together a quick draft, which I then get chastised for when there are grammatical errors or typos. It’s a two-way street.

      1. Kelly L.*

        Yup. Some days I think if I filled it with lorem ipsum, I’d get a million Track Changes comments telling me that the text makes no sense.

    2. BeenThere*

      This this this!

      Happens to me with the software I write all the time which results in more pain in post clean up rather than doing it right first time. So now my quick rough versions are not able to be deployed on run on their own, but still demonstrate the functionality required.

    3. jules*

      I’ve had colleagues who spent hours past a deadline improving a piece of work, and when I’d ask them to please send it over already their answer would be ‘it’s not the highest quality yet.’
      Well, it never will be now. Punctuality is part of quality, and now we missed the deadline.

  5. T3k*

    Ah, perfectionism, something I’ve had to struggle with all my life. I’d spend hours on something and realize I made a flaw that others *might* not notice, and sometimes end up scrapping it and starting over. At my last job, I had a manager that was good about pointing out when I just needed to create a draft versus when I should spend more time on something, but now, as I don’t have anyone that really manages over my work, I have to keep an eye on the clock to make sure I don’t spend too much time on a draft.

    1. Beancounter in Texas*

      There’s a recording of Vladimir Horowitz performing Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto and in the last movement, at the very beginning, there’s a lead up to a high note in the melody that Horowitz *missed*. He hit the wrong note! But overall, his expressionism and technical execution of the piece is superb. If this particular piece wasn’t my favorite piano composition ever, I might not have ever noticed. If it weren’t recorded, nobody else might remember.

  6. gsa*

    I hope to goodness, I am not showing my age… :D, but I remember writing, you know the thing you do with a pencil and a piece of paper, this other thing we called a “rough” draft.

    1. Tinker*

      Ah yes, I remember back in the day writing rough drafts with a pencil and piece of paper.

      When it came time to compile, I regretted my choice.

      1. Shishimai*

        Dear Tinker, one invoice for new keyboard will be coming your way – but please be aware it’s a draft and may have smudged.


      2. LBK*

        I hand-write code sometimes! I find I’m better at conceptualizing things on paper for some reason, so if I’m doing a complicated bit of work I’ll jot down a rough outline of what the module should look like and then type it up.

        1. Kairi*

          I don’t write code, but I also find that when I hand-write things, they tend to come out better than when I write drafts on the computer. I can focus better when I take a break from staring at the screen all day.

        2. Tinker*

          Heh, I do diagrams and pseudocode and the like on paper also. I’m actually a little weird among my colleagues in that I’ll sometimes take paper to meetings instead of my laptop.

          As far as actually writing straight-up code on paper, though, I only did that once. It was around in middle school, and I was attending an academic camp for identified-as-gifted kids that was structured around day-long classes in some enriching subject, with socialization of various degrees of forcedness in the evening.

          (There was a dance with mandatory attendance. Seriously. A mandatory dance.)

          Anyway, before the camp I’d read through the entire booklet about what to bring and not to bring, rules, et cetera, because I was THAT sort of kid. Personal computers (this was a time when ownership of one was not necessarily a given and was sometimes mistrusted in odd ways), roleplaying games, and collectible card games were banned, and the given justification for this was that they would interfere with the intense academic environment which required dedicated focus on the coursework. So, based on having read this, I concluded that I would need to work on the coursework during the evening free time, and the course I was attending the camp for was Pascal programming. So I drew the obvious conclusion.

          Reader, I wrote it by hand. A rough draft for my solution to a programming exercise, hand written. With all the variables declared and semicolons in at least many of the right places.

          Within a couple days I had figured out that the course was structured such that there was no need to do coursework in the evening at all, and also that handwriting code was an extraordinarily inefficient exercise. Among other things, shortly after I typed the thing in I ended up redoing my entire design (or what passed for a design from a middle schooler in the early 90s writing Pascal). It took a little longer for me to realize that perhaps I had not been told an accurate thing about why the camp wanted to ban roleplaying games and the like, but I did eventually get there.

          All knowledge is worth having. Some knowledge is of the form “won’t be doing THAT again”.

            1. Tinker*

              Yeah, essentially. The conclusion I basically came to was this: I was pretty much there for the content and the adventure of going away to camp, not so much for the people, but the camp was a part of an organization that dealt in the domain of providing for the perceived needs of identified-as-gifted children. A big part of that, at least back in the day, involved a lot of concern about the social development of such people and specifically (I think inadvertently, because of the tendency some people have to see appearance over function) getting them to socialize in a way that was comfortingly conventional and recognizable. Hence, for instance, the mandatory dance.

              Meanwhile, barring some external force, a camp at which geekish kids were accumulated could easily be expected also to contain a lot of activity related to three big-ticket items that geekish kids of that era often used for entertainment and as a social activity, namely the aforementioned RPGs, CCGs, and gaming enabled by the presence of computers. Those activities, though, were fairly likely to be perceived by the administration as some combination of a) not properly social b) potentially controversial (because yeah, as you say, that was just after the peak of anti-RPG propaganda that also tarred CCGs, and just before the peak of anti-computer-gaming propaganda). Hence, I suspect, the banning. It certainly wasn’t about time, as the evenings were clearly meant for social time rather than study time, and also Risk was allowed (I rest my case).

              Funny thing is, looking back on it, the reason I have a social circle today at all arguably comes down to that I got into roleplaying pretty much as soon as I wasn’t being closely supervised by adults who didn’t understand and would not approve that activity. Which for me wasn’t until undergrad.

              I hear nowadays that there are K-12 schools who have roleplaying clubs, and I larp with a guy who runs, no shit, a larping summer camp for kids. Amazes me.

    2. Kelly L.*

      Is this meant to be snarky? I’m not sure quite what it’s snarking at, other than tech in general?

      1. fposte*

        Agreed. And I worked in those days myself, and we really didn’t do rough drafts of everything. It’s not like people lovingly crafted iterations of their interoffice memos.

      2. gsa*

        Kelly L.

        The way posts/comments/replies show up, I do not know if your comment was directed to me, if it was I will be happy to answer.


          1. gsa*

            Kelly L.,

            Apologies not required. I was not snarking at all. Though I could have.

            If I were snarking, it would be about how technology has made us lazy, and that snark would be at us for lacking of using a tool properly.

            I spell check, edit, re-read most things I send to another person.

            I have been in my industry for 25 years. I build coffee pots. I am responsible for building as many as 15 pots at the same time, via Trade Partners. On some levels, I am a Manager, on other level, I am I re-checker/supervisor. We never tell the client their pot is ready for brewing until have have brewed a pot, and tasted it ourselves.

            To bring it back around, and I think this may the second original saying I have coined, “Check your $hIt”.


            ps: i typed, read, and edited this comment at the same time. asg

            1. Kelly L.*

              See, I don’t think technology has made us any lazier, and the article is about how sometimes perfection is not the goal. We’re talking about times that you do want a rough draft, for various reasons.

              If you’re trying to prove a point about your editing being superior, using your comment as an example, there are actually a number of errors in it. ;) But we’re writing informally here, and so it’s not a big deal.

    3. LBK*

      You can make rough drafts on a computer, too…as evidenced by the fact that I had to write countless ones throughout school that were always typed. I’m not really sure what writing by hand has to do with the ability to edit and revise.

  7. Hellanon*

    I was 30 before I learned this, and the working corollary for me was, no, you haven’t failed if you’re not the smartest kid in the room. Those two things together – not making everything into a choice between “perfect” or “garbage” – allowed me to try things, experiment, take on stretch tasks, because I could now do them well enough.

    Most of the time, well enough was just fine, and hey, look at how many more interesting/fun/challenging things can now go on the list. I am still convinced this is something everybody else knows, but it was a real revelation for me….

    1. WorkingFromCafeInCA*

      “not making everything into a choice between “perfect” or “garbage” ”

      Well said. I’m 30 and still sometimes think like this :( At least I’m aware that it’s a serious problem, and am working on it. baby steps.

  8. Colorado Girl*

    I worked for an absolute perfectionist and while he was a good guy, had more integrity than pretty much everyone else I worked with put together and I learned an unbelievable amount of things from him, he was so incredibly difficult to work for! He micro-managed down to telling me what kind of ink I should use, which I led a mutinous revolt against and got him to pull back on and he said things regarding due dates, meetings, etc., such as, “Early is on time, on time is late and late is unacceptable!” but it was the perfectionism that was the worst.

    The job was in the finance/investments arena and our department made interest payments on multi-million/-billion dollar investments. Every payment was calculated two ways in Excel, then on a financial calculator and, finally, the calc was hand written out by the person who created the wire payments. I was the first reviewer (there were three levels of review) and I had to recalculate each payment and place a check mark next to every phase of the hand written calculation indicating my agreement. We did hundreds of these each and every month. Occasionally, the person that entered the payment and wrote out the calc would transpose a number or leave out one digit out of 4 decimal places and I would (GASP!) put a check mark next to it indicating it was OK. The payment was never affected and our department had a 100% accuracy rating for many, many years, which was a source of pride for him and something that was always touted to the execs. At the end of the year I, along with the the second level reviewer, would be presented with a file of copies of each and every time we had checked off on something written that didn’t precisely match what was in the spreadsheet, calculator, etc. and would get dinged for not meeting standards. It was soul crushing to say the least.

  9. themmases*

    I can be a perfectionist to the point of procrastinating– a lot. (Ask me how my thesis proposal is going! No wait, don’t!) And when I do get started, I often create something that is way more detailed than it needs to be or is way too complicated because I tried to include everything that could possibly end up being relevant.

    Managers have really helped me with this tendency when they help me understand what a product needs to *do*, rather than what it needs to *be*.

    For my very first assignment at my current job, I needed to create a comparison of our project’s work plan and a template we’d been given. Naturally I created a table comparing the two in great detail complete with exact locations of each component and color-coding. When my boss sat down to look at it with me, her opening question was, “So… how do you see this being used?” Hmmm. What she really needed was just to know if we’d included everything we needed in our plan, and where we were told to do something if we’d missed it. It was incredibly easy once I understood the real goal.

    I try to just ask what we will do with a product if I don’t understand, but I don’t always remember or realize that this is why I don’t feel totally comfortable with an assignment (and overcompensate with perfectionism). Managers who remind me to focus on that help me a lot.

      1. themmases*

        Thank you! At first I wasn’t sure whether to count that as perfectionism because e.g. the work in that story was definitely not perfect. I’m glad it resonated with someone else.

        1. Afiendishingy*

          Yes, this is absolutely me too. Definite procrastinate to avoid doing imperfect work, and definitely struggle with spending too much time on little details to the detriment of the project as a whole.

    1. Kelly L.*

      Yes! I’ve started asking a version of that too. It’s especially handy for Excel, where sometimes you don’t need it to do anything with these numbers but you need it to do things with those numbers and so on.

    2. Jcsgo*

      Wow – how encouraging to see you put this into words! I often do the same thing, and it discouraged me for a good while. I felt frustrated until I learned what you described – to ask about the goal/purpose of the work, or what the item will be used for.

  10. Argh!*

    My work has been impacted by someone who obsesses over every little detail, and I do mean little. If something is delayed (sometimes for months) because something else is fretted over until it’s perfect, that’s not perfectionism! It’s OCD or something. It’s 50% efficiency. When I get these perfect things, which are sometimes well beyond what is called for, I know there’s an expectation of a pat on the back, but I really want to say “Why did you spend so much time on this when more important things are gathering dust on your desk?” I’m not this person’s boss, so I try to limit my comments to gentle hints, and sometimes I make pleas to my boss to talk to their boss.

    I’m amazed at how few people have read the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The one take-away from that book that has changed my outlook on perfectionism is the chart showing four categories: Important & also Urgent, Not Important but Urgent, Important but not Urgent, and Not Important/Not Urgent. The Important but not Urgent should be the focus of a day’s work. If something is not important but it’s urgent, that’s when quick-and-dirty probably applies. Most of the tiny details that perfectionists fuss over are not important and not worthy of their time.

    1. Beancounter in Texas*

      I think the word for which you seek for the person who obsesses over every. little. detail. is “pedantic.” My boss is pedantic. As in, while explaining X problem that needs a resolution before the end of the day so that Z doesn’t happen, he’ll point out that Y is a snag in the problem, but it’s a minor detail that can wait until after X is solved. He can. not. get past Y until it is resolved. Period. Nothing will persuade him to skip Y to solve X, so we often end up frantically solving X at the eleventh hour. It also takes us months to get anything done, but excepting payroll schedules, IRS deadlines and state employment deadlines, we have no “customer” breathing down our necks to hold our feet to the fire.

      1. Argh!*

        I feel your pain! My boss is like this to a lesser degree. It’s soul-killing to have your work nitpicked and have the big picture totally overlooked. Or to have one project gone over with a fine-tooth comb but another gets no attention even though a lot of time and thought went into it. I found out this week that one of those no-attention things really does get attention from other people, which is some comfort, but I wish my boss would have some moderation instead of all-or-nothing attention.

  11. GOG11*

    So, I opened the article in a different window and then got distracted. I just clicked back to that window and saw the picture and was like, “wait, what is she doing? Is she ironing a bed sheet? That makes no sense.” and then I remembered what the article was about.

    I see what you did there, Alison.

    1. Beancounter in Texas*

      In one of my online social groups for working mothers, someone mentioned that they no longer care if their bedsheets are ironed now that they’re a new mother. The rest of us reacted with, “WHAT? You IRONED your bedsheets?!” Apparently, it’s a real thing.

      1. Jessa*

        Honestly that’s probably a very, very, very (say that with a seriously posh accent from whatever area you live in) high end hotel where a crease in a sheet would send some annoying nouveau riche millionaire idiot yelling at houskeeping for hours. Mind you the billionaire next room over, would be laughing their head off.

      2. jules*

        But bedsheets feel so much nicer to sleep in when they’re ironed! I mean, I cut out that task when I’m too busy, but if I have time I will 100% iron bedsheets.

      3. Pinkie Pie Chart*

        My college roommate ironed everything. Shirts, pants, sheets, jeans, underwear…if she wore it, she ironed it. Never seen that before. Or since.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      My editor gets the credit, and he is fantastic at picking the photos.

      The only ones I get to pick are the ones for Inc. (and yes, that does mean that I get to take the credit for the adult baby yesterday).

  12. Sammie*

    The whole “perfectionist” label is quite interesting. I work for someone who proudly touts his own. But what he doesn’t get is his version of perfect means it “emanated from one of HIS own cavities”—rather than someone else’s. “It’s only perfect if I thought of it, said it, was in the room when it occurred, etc.”

    His other issue is he bottlenecks EVERYTHING—he’s either got to put his stamp on it—or convince himself he did. I’ve been lucky enough to be lectured on my own idea. Different facet—same jewel…

    Soul-crushing indeed—needless to say I am job searching with great zeel.

  13. Realistic*

    I’m so grateful I had an early mentor who taught me about “time-to-task ratio” to curb my perfectionism. “I anticipate this should take you about X hours. If it takes you considerably more, please check in with me before continuing on it.” Or, “Let’s check in after you’ve spent X hours to see what you’ve got, and then we may adjust how you spend your remaining time….” Giving me a sense of how much time he had mentally allocated for something, and doing an honest check-in on my progress allowed me the freedom to show him something that was less-than-perfect, and from there decide how much more time needed to be spent polishing.

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